Lesson #4: Be a traveling companion.
The truth is, I never really “left my mother in a nursing home.” Yes, she lived in the skilled nursing residence, but I was there with her nearly every day. We talked. We watched detective shows on television. I cut her hair and gave her manicures. I bought a portable DVD player and we binge-watched all six seasons of Downton Abbey. I sang along with the soundtracks of old movie musicals to make her laugh. I made her ice cream sodas. The stroke severely compromised my mother’s cognition and communication skills. Those skills kept declining through her last months. We still communicated. There were times when we just sat and looked at each other, transferring love even when words deserted us. Those months when I was traveling with her on her journey towards the end of life were gut-crushing and almost unbearable. Still, I feel like my bond with my mother is more exquisite now because of that time of sharing.
It isn’t that important what you do when with a dying parent. It is way more important just to be there. The most important thing to a person who is dying is for that person to know that she is loved and that her life has had value. That is really what I was doing for my mother as her traveling companion.
Lesson #5: Let go.
I traveled with my mother for thirteen excruciating, exhausting, and amazing months. It was hard to let go when the time finally came. I saw my mother start slipping away from me in that thirteenth month. In the last weeks and days of a person’s life, it is important for that person to complete her own internal journey. That journey belongs to the dying person. It must be whatever it must be for that person. At some level, death is something that we each have to do on our own. Traveling with my mother on her path was the hardest thing I’d ever done in my life. It was unimaginably harder to know that she was coming to a fork in the road where she would go one way and I would not be able to follow.
My mother’s spirit and mine tangled together for most of my life. In her last months, those tangles became more matted and stubborn. We both knew that we were coming to the fork in the road, but it was as if neither one of us wanted to be the first to turn away from the other. I had to stop clutching those tangles and let her know it was safe for her to allow them to slide apart. Then, I just stayed at the fork of the road and watched while she went her own way. She fell asleep. I’m sure that, when she awoke, she found herself in God’s dwelling place instead of in a nursing home bed.
I hope these lessons are helpful to others who are walking the same shaky, shuddering path that I did. I know, however, that the true learning is in the living. Everyone who takes this challenging, tempering journey will learn their own lessons- all different and all precious.